Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water
Some bad news from underwater in the Caribbean. Indo-Pacific Lionfish have apparently been spotted on the Mayan Riviera, the stretch of coast from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south, of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and throughout much of the rest of the Caribbean. These fish don't belong there. It's not their natural habitat, and they're predators to most other reef species. They are voracious. And to top it off, their spines are also toxic to humans.
A Lionfish is any of several species of venomous marine fish in the genera Pterois, Parapterois, Brachypterois, Ebosia or Dendrochirus, of the family Scorpaenidae. The lionfish is also known as the Turkey Fish, Dragon Fish, Scorpion or Fire Fish. They are notable for their extremely long and separated spines, and have a generally striped appearance, red, green, navy green, brown, orange, yellow, black, maroon, or white. Wiki.
Where do these fish come from?
The lionfish is not native to the tropical region of the world, but various species can be found worldwide.... the lionfish has been spotted in the warmer coral regions of the eastern Atlantic Ocean around the Azores and extending into the Mediterranean Sea, and also in the Caribbean Sea. It has been speculated that this introduction may well have been caused when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in southern Florida. DNA from captured lionfish in this region shows that they all originated from the same six or seven fishNPR traces the spread of lionfish from Florida throughout the Bahamas:
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew smashed an aquarium tank in Florida. About a half-dozen spiny, venomous lionfish washed into the Atlantic Ocean, spawning an invasion that could kill off local industry along with the native fish....
"In 2005, the first lionfish showed up [in the Bahamas], and we didn't pay much attention to it," says Oregon State University zoology professor Mark Hixon, who has studied reef fish here for almost two decades. "The next year, we saw a few more. Then in 2007 there was a population explosion. There were so many lionfish around that they were eating the fish we were studying, and we had to start studying the lionfish. There was nothing else to do."
... The Bahamas have been hit the hardest.
Last year, Hixon co-authored a study with Mark Albins that showed a lionfish can kill three-quarters of a reef's fish population in just five weeks.
"This year we're going to see if that's gotten worse — because the number of lionfish has definitely increased in the intervening year," Hixon says.
These fish are voracious predators. That means that other, native reef fish are their prey. And that an increase in the lionfish population of reefs will lead inexorably to a decrease in the numbers of other species. This is apparently well underway in the Bahamas. And may be beginning on the coast of Mexico.
Meanwhile, NOAA has issued a warning to divers:
NOAA encourages everyone (divers and fishers) to be extremely cautious and avoid contact with the venomous spikes of the lionfish. Usually, lionfish are not aggressive toward humans and will almost always keep their distance when given the opportunity, so they pose a relatively low risk. In addition, their stings are not deadly, but they are very painful.
Is there a solution to this invasion? So far, no. CBS in August reported a contest in the Bahamas to capture and remove the fish from the reef. And that's the tactic that is best for small bays in the Mayan Riviera, especially those with a lot of snorkeling or diving. The fish need to be captured and removed. Of course, that's not practical throughout the Caribbean, but intensive capture and removal are the only way to preserve reef fish until a better solution arises.
The only good news: apparently lionfish are tasty. Maybe humans can overfish them the way they've overfished other species.